We said NO! Students of Theatre Academies Resist the Misuse of Power

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Author of the text/moderator: Alice Koubová (CZ) / Associate Professor affiliated at the Institute of Philosophy of the Czech Academy of Sciences and Vice-Dean for Research at the Theatre Faculty, Academy of Performing Arts in Prague
Marie-Luisa Purkrábková (CZ), Kateřina Císařová (CZ) / The Theatre Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague
Mia Skrbinac (SI) / Academy of Theatre, Radio, Film and Television, Ljubljana
Agata Koszulińska (PL), Pamela Leończyk (PL) / National Academy of Dramatic Art in Warsaw
Salvör Gullbrá (IS) / Iceland University of the Arts, Reykjavík

In theatre academies across Europe, students are initiating change and speaking out about misus-es of power at their institutions. In a challenging environment, where lecturers are often future col-leagues or employers and the very nature of the art forms demands going beyond normal human interaction, students are working to create fairer, safer spaces for learning and creative risk-taking, sometimes at great personal or professional cost. In this episode, we hear from current or former students from four countries who took actions to change their institutions’ culture. We’ll hear their stories and see what conclusions and strategies emerge from placing their experiences in dialogue.

Links to projects, organisations and initiatives mentioned in the discussion and in this episode:

No! You Don’t Have to Endure It

#11_We said NO! Students of Theatre Academies Resist the Misuse of Power

Alice Koubová

The issue of sexual abuse, harassment, and sexism towards women in the work environment has only recently become a significant topic of public discussion. Since the advent of MeToo, the abuse of power over women in the art world has been confirmed to such an extent that it is impossible to consider it as anything but a structural issue. The notion that this problem concerns only those individuals who behave unacceptably in an otherwise entirely fair environment is illusory. We can therefore speak about the culture of the culture sector, a culture of relationships that do not foster equal or respectful working conditions for women in artistic settings, simply because they are women. This culture begins to be established in art schools, where the instructors are also active in the profession and embody its culture. Such instructors don’t just develop their students’ artistry; they also introduce them to the rules of operation within cultural organisations. Instructors’ behaviour is viewed as a model and shapes that of future professionals. This is why issues of discrimination at art schools are crucial. It is within these institutions that customary patterns of behaviour are replicated and new generations initiated into them. A second important matter is an acknowledgement that acting demands work with the performer’s subjectivity, body and emotions. By definition, this includes more crossing of boundaries  – whether emotional, personal or physical – than is generally typical in other working relationships. Because of this, the theatre needs different standards than other industries. The sector must be able to distinguish more precisely between professional activity and abuse and navigate situations that occur only rarely in other professions. In the worst cases, there are no standards that correspond to the uncertainties of working in such atypical settings. The issue of crossing boundaries seems to occupy a shadowy grey zone, which remains undiscussed due to its complexity. This situation results in a field that is ripe for exploitation, particularly if the players are in unequal power relationships, such as that of teacher/student. 

In many European theatre academies, students have recently begun to draw attention to what is going on in this grey zone. They have chosen to protest the patterns of behaviour of those in power, whose influence extends beyond the art school into the cultural sector itself, and who wield their power in unauthorised and inappropriate ways. 

Show Off invited current and former students from theatre academies in four countries who have initiated change in their institutions to take part in the webinar that inspired this essay. The guests included Marie-Luisa Purkrábková and Kateřina Císařová from Prague, Mia Skrbinac from Ljubljana, Agata Koszulińska and Pamela Leończyk from Warsaw and Salvör Gullbrá from Reykjavík, each of whom began by sharing what happened at their school.

Salvör Gullbrá – Iceland University of the Arts, Reykjavík

The turning point at Iceland University of the Arts (IUA) occurred in the context of broader social change catalysed by the MeToo movement in 2017. At first, private Facebook groups formed, where women shared stories from various professional fields. Women working in the performing arts sector shared a huge number of stories, from sexual harassment and insults to rape. The context of many stories indicated that they took place at IUA. With a population of 350,000, Iceland has a small theatre community and so it was not difficult to identify the relevant instructors, despite the anonymity of the stories. Students shared the discomfort caused by compulsory nudity during rehearsals, or patronising statements such as, “I’m a teaching artist and I know how it’s done, you’re a student and you should listen, this is how art works.”

It was striking that the acting students’ experiences were far worse than those of students in performance and theatre-making. As Salvör explained, it is notoriously hard to get into the acting department, which accepts just 10 students a year; receiving a place is the fulfilment of a dream and an achievement with lifelong value. IUA’s teaching artists are simultaneously future employers, which leaves students in a double bind: they are afraid to make trouble because they’re en route to the job of their dreams and any resistance could hurt their chances of getting a job in the theatre sector in the future. Students feel the need to present themselves as easy to work with in order to establish a good reputation.  

Based on the experiences shared, women acting students at IUA wrote a letter containing a list of the problematic issues and practices they had encountered at the school. They discussed this letter in person with the Dean of IUA, in the presence of Salvör as Chair of the Student Council. Students from other departments stood in solidarity with the acting students. Ultimately the head of the acting department resigned as an expression of responsibility and another instructor’s contract was not extended. 

The guidelines for negotiating physical and psychological boundaries within artistic processes were also updated.  The university management acted in favour of change, but it likely had no choice, due to the pressure exerted by students, the broader social climate and the media, which took a keen interest in cases of harassment at the university. 

Agata Koszulińska and Pamela Leończyk – National Academy of Dramatic Art, Warsaw 

In 2017, the Polish theatre community could not rely on the same social pressure for change as was being felt in Iceland. Still, in 2018 the Warsaw Academy was the first institution to begin to address abuses of power. The catalyst was the case of an important professor, who had been known to direct various types of abusive conduct towards women students. The students’ first attempt at redress via an intervention with the Dean of the Academy was not successful, and so they appealed to the Rector, who had a completely different response and proceeded to address the situation. At the same time, the Academy’s alumni got involved, signing a letter to the Rector that described the abusive behaviour of the given faculty member over a period of 20 years. The current students’ testimony was thus confirmed by many Polish theatre artists, including many important figures, and was so serious that it could not be ignored. Because the professor in question served as guarantor for the field of study, it was not a simple matter for the Academy to terminate his employment from one day to the next. Accordingly, he first stopped teaching and subsequently left the school of his own volition as part of long-term negotiations. There were also court proceedings concerning individual cases.

Here we can see a complex paradox emerging in the teaching and practice of acting: exceeding the general norms of human contact is part of this profession. This makes it very difficult to determine when necessary transgression of boundaries tips over into abuse. This is often the terrain of strange, ambiguous comments and late-night phone calls, when the professor tells the student that she is useless, or speaks to her inappropriately. If the student hasn’t managed to record the call, it’s one person’s word against another. The previously mentioned professor, for example, systematically insulted the students, but defended his actions by arguing that it was part of the tradition. He claimed he was doing the best he could for them, though in some cases it amounted to pure violence. 

In light of this case, a working group was formed at the Warsaw Academy, which proposed the establishment of an ethics committee and ombudsman, and supported the establishment of workshops for instructors on non-violent communication and the recognition of manipulation and violence. Most importantly, however, the students’ activity broke the silence and forced the issue to be discussed openly, not only at the Academy, but across the Polish theatre community.

Marie-Luisa Purkrábková and Kateřina Císařová – Theatre Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (DAMU)

No! You Don’t Have to Endure It! is an initiative affiliated with the Theatre Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts. It arose from an awareness of various abuses of power, insults from teachers, and “public secrets”, which, despite being well-known within the institution, were never publicly addressed and were accompanied by a sense that nothing could be done about them. The initiative aimed to disrupt the normalisation and acceptance of such behaviour. In addition to educating themselves about sexism and abuses of power, the initiators created a questionnaire that offered fellow students a chance to their stories. In June 2021, these stories were read publicly as part of a performance in front of the DAMU building. The initiative was subsequently amplified by social media and the school’s management engaged with the issue, while graduates and faculty also spoke up in support of the initiative, helping to communicate it further. 

No! You Don’t Have to Endure It! was not provoked by a specific, individual scandal, but emerged in response to the sense of a toxic environment, a grey area of bullying; because of this, not everyone was willing to engage with the issue. The initiators found the response of some lecturers, who considered the complaints an expression of weakness and incompetence, while also calling for individual culprits to be reported, problematic. Additionally, many students still refrain from reporting unethical behaviour and are reluctant to respond or take action to address their problems. This may be due in part to the fact they are not able to recognise unethical behaviour; they may lack suitable language for it, or general orientation in the issue, and thus prefer to deny that anything has happened to them, playing down the significance of events, claiming that they do not want to hurt a given instructor or expressing fear.

Mia Skrbinac, Academy of Theatre, Radio, Film and Television, Ljubljana

The Slovenian theatre scene suffers from a familiar problem: the community of theatre-makers is small and everyone knows everyone else. As a result, the systemic problems that are present in this community are difficult to change due to the strong interconnectedness and interdependence of all involved. Public secrets of a pathological and unchanging nature are often well known.

Further, art schools often replicate pathological principles and traumatic habits, pushing students to the brink of their endurance, cultivating an image of the theatre industry as a world where only the strongest survive, and trivialising sexualised violence. To oppose any form of abuse is thus still seen as a bold and unusual act, rather than a normal response to injustice. After a long period of mustering courage, strength and support, Mia became the first student at the Ljubljana Academy to report sexual abuse by an acting instructor. 

In dealing with her own case, Mia experienced what it was like to gradually realise that she was a victim of abuse. She did not at first understand, for example, that freezing when in contact with her abuser was a traumatic response to his attacks. Gradually, she understood that she was neither weak nor incompetent, but that the whole situation was unfolding in a context that placed her at a disadvantage and that she had the right to defend herself. Because she received no support from the theatre community, she had to rely on just a few supportive individuals from her immediate circle. In addition, after reporting the case, she was exposed to another series of challenging situations, interrogations and confrontations.

The Academy has not approached the matter with transparency and does not want to address the issue. Recently, however, student initiatives have emerged that point out unethical behaviour. 

What tools are suitable and effective? What are good practices?

  1. Participants’ ability to connect, coordinate and pursue a common goal. If one is to stand up to power, they must rely on a different kind of strength found through connection and interconnection with others. A unified platform cannot be easily suppressed. 
  2. Collecting data, archiving histories, and ongoing awareness of the history of individual events, or cases. Students should have the opportunity to know about events that have taken place at their school in the past, in order to be able to resist the return of such problems.  
  3. Clear guidelines on what to do if someone experiences discrimination and what the school will do as soon as someone reports a problem. This will prevent schools from failing to act in the aftermath of a report, because they will have an explicit obligation to deal with the matter.  
  4. Education in mechanisms for the abuse of power, manipulative behaviour, and the prevention of abusive behaviour.
  5. The creation of a culture in which people are willing to change strategies of communication, overcome discomfort and engage in small conflicts to support subtle changes.
  6. Proper handling of the media. It is not possible to solve everything through the media; after a wave of sensationalism, interest will peter out.  Moreover, too much reliance on the media may lead to the case assuming a life of its own, which may not be helpful in terms of solving the actual problem. 
  7. It is necessary to keep discussing these issues via ongoing communication, continuous social pressure and perseverance.

Reformulating the concepts of safety and freedom

– We do not want safety in the sense of strengthening control, which neutralises anything that is creative and experimental. Safety doesn’t mean that we will be afraid to do anything.

– We achieve safety through communication about intimate situations. If we need to touch in a physical theatre piece, it is necessary to communicate in advance and draw attention to what will happen and why.  

– We achieve safety by agreeing on the rules for a rehearsal process, or artistic creation, in advance. 

– In order to create, we must be vulnerable, open, and outside of our comfort zone, but we need to be confident that our vulnerability will not be compromised and that we have the safety we need for experimentation. The student initiatives do not call for a sterile environment, but for the certainty that no one will abuse their openness and vulnerability, their willingness to experiment.

– Unintentional ethical conflicts can arise, even with good intentions on both sides; these situations must also be discussed. 

– No one can experience artistic freedom in an unsafe work environment, only fear. We will not lose any artistic freedom if we eliminate unsafe working conditions. 

– We need a framework within which to play and play that is determined by a set of rules.  Rules don’t limit our freedom, but define the playing field for our freedom. 

– Rules can help us when communication isn’t possible.  It’s good to have something to fall back on when spontaneous communication doesn’t work. 

The danger of abusing the discourse of abuse of power

– As part of these initiatives, it is appropriate always to be aware of the possibility that their energy can be used for aims other than those originally intended.  

– It is also appropriate to be aware of the internal tensions among those who stand against the abuse of power. Power struggles can emerge, even within initiatives of this type. 

– Once the first initiators have crossed the threshold of genuine threat and fear associated with speaking out, protest can become a popular stance and fashionable issue. This makes it easier to abuse.

General observations

– We observed similarities across countries with different theatrical traditions.

– The webinar guests were impacted by meeting one another; they came together and supported the encounter, which created feelings of solidarity and strength and the determination to further change. 

– There is a further question of how to reach out to and support those who are dealing with their problems in isolation.